New Christmas Music for 2018: Lots of Goodies to Unwrap From Kris Allen, Candace Bellamy, Eric Clapton, Rodney Crowell, Brett Eldredge, Sara Evans, Jessie J, John Legend, The Mavericks, Martina McBride, JD McPherson, Pentatonix, Serena Ryder, Sia, Sy Smith, Lindsey Stirling, Chely Wright, and Many More



Photo courtesy of Candace Bellamy. Read about her Soul for the Season below.

Somebody'd say this tree's not real
'Cause it stands there every year
But it makes my holiday feel
Like Christmas

The above lyrics come from the title track of Mindy Smith's My Holiday album. The same principle might apply to music, which is such an integral part of Christmas. This year we have a whole new batch of music for the holidays.

If there is a trend this year, I'll say it's to write new original music. A number of albums eschew the classic carols, hymns, and secular standards, either in whole or in part.

Clich├ęd covers are still down and I think radio bans aside, that almost no one released a cover of "Baby It's Cold Outside" in 2018 probably because of the #MeToo movement, for better or worse.

I'm also pleased to report that there are almost no new covers of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", Joni Mitchell's "River", and I'm even softening on "My Favorite Things" (see Jack Jezzro, below). Great songs yes... but Christmas? No indeed; and thankfully (hopefully) that will be my last word on that subject.

On the other hand, I'm glad to see so many versions of Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" and the Vince Guaraldi/Bill Mendelson composition "Christmastime Is Here" (from A Charlie Brown Christmas) and that they are becoming modern standards of the Christmas repertoire, so keep 'em coming.

Dive in, have a listen. You are sure to find something to match your mood, whatever it might be.

Here are my picks for the best and/or most relevant new Christmas releases of 2018.

Mindi Abair – All I Got For Christmas Is The Blues
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Mindi Abair's Christmas album for 2018 is one loud blues-rock affair. She co-wrote three of the four originals. Abair also sang and played sax with her band the Boneshakers. There are also five familiar classics for Abair and band to rock out on. There's no jazz here, just the chance to get down and dirty with All I Got For Christmas Is The Blues.
Listen to "All I Got For Christmas Is the Blues" and "The Christmas Song"

Kris Allen – Somethin' About Christmas
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Arkansas native Kris Allen has just released his first Christmas album, Somethin' About Christmas. Now based in Nashville, Allen has crafted a mostly acoustic combination of new originals and familiar classics. I'm liking this entire record, but I want to single out one selection to illustrate Allen's talent. Over the years, most versions of "Here Comes Santa Claus" that I've heard have sounded like kiddie tunes. Allen's version recreates a great song for all ages. He has some guests on the album, but the main attraction is his fluid voice, his guitar, and the relaxed good feeling that you get with every play.
Listen to "Here Comes Santa Claus" and "Mommy, Is There More Than Just One Santa Claus"

Candace Bellamy – Soul for the Season
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Candace Bellamy was blessed with a voice that is both a privilege and a pleasure to listen to. Hers may be the closest thing I've heard to a genre-free voice. Sure, her records are imbued with plenty of soul, jazz, rock, pop, as well as some folk, country, blues, and gospel. But when Bellamy sings, it's her clear tone and delivery that can make a song her own. Never mind that four of these eight tracks were released as an EP in 2016. I was knocked out by her then and I would say I'm even more impressed now. I am in awe of the consummate musicianship on this record and the way it is used by her production team of Todd Wilson, Jim Echels and Wayne Salzmann. I'd like to recommend all of the tracks, but in addition to the two linked below I must also mention that "Little Drummer Boy" goes all New Orleans when the trumpet comes in evoking images of the second line. Also, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" has a sweet jazz guitar and an understated vocal turn that totally makes the song jazz. And finally, you have to hear her do "O Holy Night"; she exposes everything that's great about this classic hymn and in so doing tells you all that you need to know about this amazing artist.
Listen to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "O Come O Come Emmanuel"

Eric Clapton - Happy Xmas
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Eric Clapton has learned a thing or two during his 50+ year career as a guitar god, songwriter, singer, and producer. He just gets better and better with each passing decade. Happy Xmas, his first ever holiday release, quite literally has it all. You have to hear his electric blues take on "White Christmas" and a number of others. The songs on Happy Xmas are mostly vintage Christmas classics (excluding two gorgeous carols), some well known and some not so much. He even wrote one for the occasion, the excellent “For Love on Christmas Day". His voice has never been stronger. I, for one, am very glad that Clapton reconsidered his 2016 pronouncement that he was retiring. Happy Xmas may just be Eric Clapton's most well rounded solo album.
Listen to "White Christmas" and “For Love on Christmas Day"

Rodney Crowell – Christmas Everywhere
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Rodney Crowell is a bonafide multiple threat as a singer, musician, songwriter, and producer (Shannon McNalley, Chely Wright, Rosanne Cash). This time, Crowell was in the artist chair for Christmas Everywhere, an album that is so well done it stands out among this year's batch of new Christmas releases. Dan Knobler produced and Crowell wrote, or co-wrote, every track. Songs run the gamut from hugely humorous to downright sad. Christmas Everywhere is a first rate country singer-songwriter album.
Listen to: “Christmas Everywhere” and “When the Fat Guy Tries the Chimney On For Size”

Sara Evans - At Christmas
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At Christmas was first released in 2014 as a Walmart exclusive digital download. It was finally released as a physical CD in 2018 to all retailers. Sara Evans is a country star of the first order with a voice to match. This album's ten tracks include one original with the rest divided between carols and popular classics. Her band can handle everything from mellow acoustic to full tilt country rock as on the original title track. I love when the mostly mellow acoustic backing frames a tasteful electric guitar solo. Evans is, perhaps, the most referential on the religious tunes. You'd have to look far to find a mainstream country Christmas album better than this one.
Listen to "Run Rudolph Run" and "O Come All Ye Faithful"

Aretha Franklin – This Christmas Aretha
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This ten year old release comes to be on this year's list by virtue of it being released on vinyl for the first time. In 2008, her voice may not have been as youthful as it was in the 1960s, but after multiple listens I am here to tell you that the Queen of Soul still had what it takes. This Christmas Aretha has everything you could want in a Christmas album, and I'm just talking about the first three tracks. Being that Aretha grew up with gospel, the only surprising aspect of this album is how well the popular tunes were chosen, performed, arranged, and produced. I can't stop playing This Christmas Aretha.
Listen to "This Christmas" and "My Grown Up Christmas List"

Jessie J – This Christmas Day
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British pop songstress Jessie J (not to be confused with California jazz musician Jessy J) has been matched with uber-producer David Foster and a production team of R&B royalty including Babyface, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The resulting This Christmas Day album is poised for world domination. Jessie does a fine job on the vocals on this solid set of almost all popular tunes. Boyz II Men and Babyface also added background vocals. I loved the big band on the first four tracks. The title track is a new original co-written by Jessie J.
Listen to "Man With the Bag" and "This Christmas Day"

Jack Jezzro – Christmas Jazz Guitar: Instrumental Jazz for the Holidays
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If you listen to this album and your first thought is "We appreciate your call, please stay on the line we'll be with you shortly", I understand. I prefer to picture a small venue, late at night. It's got to be cozy and warm, perhaps a jazz club, a restaurant, or maybe a bar. The headline act has played and gone home. The house band takes the stage to play a little Christmas music. The bass is upright, the drummer plays with brushes, the guitarist plays a very mellow electric; soloists wander in when needed. Some trumpet here, some sax there, even some oboe, piano, keyboards, etc. The mellow guitarist even takes a solo. All the solos are very jazzy. Jack Jezzro's Christmas Jazz Guitar: Instrumental Jazz for the Holidays might just be your cup of late night holiday chill. While I listened to this, a strange thing happened. it was toward the end of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" when I had the thought, "Right about now it would be nice to hear 'My Favorite Things'", and damn if that wasn't the very next track. Jezzro is a hugely accomplished guitarist, multi instrumentalist, and producer working in Nashville.
Listen to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "My Favorite Things"

Denise King - I'll Be Home For Christmas
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This album may serve as the prime example of everything that's great about the combination of Christmas and jazz. Denise King sounds relaxed and in charge, the surroundings are mostly mellow with a sax sound that I want to hear on every track, and some brilliant piano. Of the sixteen tracks, three are carols and the rest are popular standards. This one is perfect for your late night Christmas playlist, plus it's one that you'll surely want to play when friends and relatives visit.
Listen to "Christmas Time Is Here" and "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"

John Legend – A Legendary Christmas
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This one should win for best album title. John Legend always seemed to be, along with Alesha Keyes, a member of music royalty; you always see him performing on TV at the most important events. Legend demonstrates his boundless energy on A Legendary Christmas. The album's fourteen all popular Christmas songs include six new originals, all co-written by Legend, along with album producer Raphael Saadiq as a co-writer on three. Legend has a way of taking songs you know and giving them a little twist to make them his own. Guests include Stevie Wonder and Esperanza Spalding.
Listen to "What Christmas Means to Me" and "Silver Bells"

The Mavericks – Hey! Merry Christmas!
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If Elvis came from Texas, he might make a Christmas album that sounds something like Hey! Merry Christmas! by The Mavericks. Here we have an album that's mostly new originals, with two familiar classics, all popular. On their first foray into Christmas music, frontman Raul Malo and his friends in The Mavericks are here to provide the sixties-sounding soundtrack to your holiday party. All you have to do is play the CD (or download, or stream).
Listen to "Santa Wants to Take You for a Ride" and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)"

Martina McBride – It's The Holiday Season
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It's The Holiday Season is Martina McBride's second Christmas album and it's a good one. I'll let McBride tell it: “It’s been exactly 20 years since I released White Christmas. With that album I wanted to make it classic and something that would stand the test of time, which I feel like it has done. I wanted to accomplish the same thing with It’s The Holiday Season, but with a different feel. So I decided to make most of the album with a big-band swing vibe that takes you back to the Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald records. We recorded more of the pop Christmas numbers that lend themselves to that kind of feel rather than the focusing on the hymns like we did with White Christmas. I think they are great companion pieces and my hope is that they will both be enjoyed for years to come.”
Listen to "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" and "Home for the Holidays"

Michael McDonald – Season of Peace: The Christmas Collection
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If Michael McDonald's previous Christmas releases left you confused, Season of Peace collects highlights of two earlier Christmas albums, In the Spirit and Through the Many Winters and adds a new track "Winter Wonderland", an instrumental duet with Jake Shimabukuro. Other guests on this collection include Jonny Lang ("White Christmas/Winter Wonderland"), Amy Holland ("Wexford Carol") and Twinkie Clark ("Children Go Where I Send Thee"). On Season of Peace: The Christmas Collection we get a full fifteen tracks; some familiar classics, some less familiar, some original, and some gospel. McDonald is the featured player and singer on the record. With vocal and instrumental performances this good, it's easy to get lost in the excellent production.
Listen to "That's What Christmas Means To Me" and "Christmas On The Bayou"

JD McPherson – SOCKS
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It's party time again. JD McPherson sounds like he is ploughing the same conceptual /musical territory as James Hunter. It's the 1950's or maybe the early 60s. It's definitely pre-Beatles and R&B is king, On this album the vocals are everything, plus a solid rhythm section, some hot guitar, organ, piano or sax. In addition to the great atmosphere, McPherson (who wrote or co-wrote the eleven songs), is a gifted lyricist. Drop the proverbial needle anywhere on SOCKS and see what I mean. Listening to this record is a joy, whether a given song's content is or not. McPherson's label, New West summed it up nicely: "There is something for everyone on this record to enjoy whether you are in the Christmas spirit or if you just wanna say, 'Bah Humbug'.”
Listen to "Ugly Sweater Blues" and "Twinkle (Little Christmas Lights)"

Ingrid Michaelson - Songs for the Season
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With an irresistibly appealing voice and backing that sounds like the big bands of the 1940s, Ingrid Michaelson has made perhaps the most pleasant surprise on this list. Co-producers Dan Romer and Saul Simon-MacWilliams did a stellar job giving the recording a relaxed, mellow feel; the music never threatens to overwhelm the vocal performance. The selections are all popular standards with the exception of one original.
Listen to "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" and "I'll Be Home For Christmas"

Old 97's – Love The Holidays
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Love The Holidays is the first ever Christmas album from the Old 97's. Go directly to their Texas Christmas party, complete with nine new original compositions plus a terrific rendering of "Auld Lang Syne". That, by itself, is a great Christmas record, but you also get four bonus tracks of familiar tunes, two carols and two rockers. The bonus tracks are good too, but they sound like you've switched to another album when they come on. Vinyl enthusiasts may be interested in a limited edition LP pressed on candy cane vinyl.
Listen to "I Believe In Santa Claus" and "Auld Lang Syne"

Pentatonix – Christmas Is Here!
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By now I would expect that everyone knows about Pentatonix. Christmas Is Here! is their fourth Christmas album. Pentatonix is a five person a cappella singing group and Christmas seems to be an especially fertile ground for this kind of music. Straight No Chaser does extremely well with it too, and there are others. Lest you think that after three albums they'd be running out of material, they're not. The occasion of their fourth Christmas record has afforded them the opportunity to sing some less familiar tunes and they have made a more interesting record as a result.
Listen to "What Christmas Means To Me" and "Grown-Up Christmas List (feat. Kelly Clarkson)"

Serena Ryder - Christmas Kisses
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I've been listening to this Canadian import since 2006 when she released a brilliant album that surveyed Canadian songwriters. Although Serena Ryder is not yet a household name in the states, she is definitely a mainstream star in her native Canada. Hence this very traditional and jazzy Christmas album.
“Jazz music has always been one of my biggest vocal influencers,” says Ryder. “When I was a young girl, I would spend hours upon hours locked away in my room listening and singing to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone and Chet Baker. It’s been a dream of mine to be able to sing an entire album in this style - and also a dream to be able to embrace the spirit of Christmas in a genuinely joyful way.”
Listen to "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" and "Blue Christmas"

Arturo Sandoval - Christmas at Notre Dame
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Arturo Sandoval is a Cuban born trumpet player who may be best known for Latin Jazz. Sandoval is an amazing player with a fantastic tone. He reminds me a bit of Chris Botti. Christmas at Notre Dame is Sandoval's first full length Christmas album in a long career of wowing listeners with his horn. This is a live recording that also features the Notre Dame Children's Choir, Jazz Ensemble, Symphonic Winds, vocal soloists from Sacred Music at Notre Dame, and pianist Alex Mansour. I absolutely loved the instrumental pieces where Sandoval gets the spotlight to himself and on some tracks the vocals don't interfere that much with Sandoval's trumpet. I just wish there were more of them.
Listen to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Ave Maria"

Sy Smith - Christmas In Syberspace
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True to its title, Christmas In Syberspace puts a soulful yet futuristic twist on some popular Christmas classics. Most of the EP was a long distance construction. Issac Richardson created the basic tracks in Nashville. Sy Smith finished them in her LA studio. According to SoulTracks (with many thanks for the recommendation) the last track, "Little Drummer Boy", was done top to bottom by Smith. Christmas In Syberspace is not your father's Christmas record. It's a bit different, take a listen. I'm liking it a whole lot.
Listen to "Christmas Time Is Here" and "My Favorite Things (Syberized)"
Note: As we go to press, this delightful take on the holidays is downloading for free at Smith's Bandcamp page.

South Philly Big Band - SPBB XMAS (featuring Najwa Parkins)
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This band is comprised of jazz musicians from Philadelphia and judging by the quality of this five track EP, they are musicians of the highest order. I'm having a hard time believing that this EP represents their entire recorded output, unless of course they may be just getting started. I'm also very much liking the vocals by Najwa Parkins. For the record, SPBB XMAS contains two carols and three popular Christmas classics.
Listen to "The Christmas Song" and "This Christmas"

Various Artists – Songbird: Voices Of Christmas
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Songbird: Voices Of Christmas is a essentially a sampler from Green Hill Productions. It has a nice vibe, with the style changing from track to track. It doesn't much matter if you have never heard of the artists, this record sounds good regardless. It turns out that Green Hill has an enormous collection of Christmas albums under their imprint. If you hear something you like on here, chances are that Green Hill will have one or more albums by that artist.
Listen to "Sleigh Ride" (Matt Belsante) and "What Child Is This?" (Orla Fallon)

Chely Wright – Santa Will Find You
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Santa Will Find You is a great five track EP (with bonus track six) that features three new Wright original co-writes, billboarded by covers of two Mindy Smith originals that appeared on Smith's My Holiday album (2007). These tracks are "It Really Is (A Wonderful Life)" and the title track, and to my knowledge this makes the first time anyone has covered them. My Holiday has been one of my favorite Christmas albums, mostly on the quality of Smith's originals. The three Chely Wright tracks make for a tasty center of this musical confection. "Can't Believe It's Christmas" and "Christmas Isn't Christmas Time" could both be singles while "Happy New Year Old Friend" is a mellow number that walks the fine line between happy and sad. The bonus track is a remix of track four (Christmas Isn't Christmas Time) in the style of Phil Spector.
Listen to "Christmas Isn't Christmas Time" and "Santa Will Find You"

Four deluxe reissues for your listening pleasure:

Brett Eldredge – Glow (Deluxe)
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Glow was an excellent album when Brett Eldredge released it in 2016
. For 2018, they have added seven new tracks, completely resequenced it, and reissued it as a deluxe edition. The new tracks sound as if they might have been recorded at the same time as the rest of the record. The new material brakes down to three carols and four popular, all Christmas classics, which makes the album glow that much brighter.
Listen to "Silver Bells" and "Sleigh Ride"

Sia - Everyday Is Christmas (Deluxe)
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Sia released Everyday Is Christmas last year with ten original tunes. This deluxe edition contains three additional songs as tracks 11, 12, and 13. There are two more originals by Sia and Greg Kurstin and one a cover of a Perry Como song.
Listen to "Round and Round" (Perry Como cover) and "For My Life"

Gwen Stefani - You Make It Feel Like Christmas (Deluxe)
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Gwen Stefani's release from last year, You Make It Feel Like Christmas, has been reissued as a deluxe edition with five new tracks concluding the album. Billboard has the details, "Gwen Stefani, currently in the middle of a Las Vegas residency, just released a deluxe version of her 2017 holiday album You Make It Feel Like Christmas. Five new tracks -- two originals and three covers -- come in addition to the 12 tracks that were released last year. The new tracks include iconic Christmas hits including "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "Winter Wonderland," and Stefani teams up with Chilean singer-songwriter Mon Laferte to cover "Feliz Navidad." "Secret Santa" and "Cheer for the Elves" are both originals."
Listen to "Secret Santa" and "Feliz Navidad"

Lindsey Stirling – Warmer In The Winter (Deluxe)
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According to Lindsey Stirling's press release, Warmer in the Winter, outsold every other holiday album of 2017. The album is a showcase for Stirling's expressive violin as well as her vocals, which sound pop chart ready. For this year's deluxe edition, five tracks have been added: “I Wonder as I Wander,” "We Three Gentlemen" (Medley of “We Three Kings”, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Carol Of The Bells”), “Santa Baby,” “Main Title from Home Alone (Somewhere in My Memory),” and "Hallelujah". If you like Warmer in the Winter you're going to love the new tracks. The first one, “I Wonder As I Wander”, has already been made into a music video.
Listen to “I Wonder As I Wander” and “Main Title from Home Alone (Somewhere in My Memory)”

Five singles to make your spirits brighter:

Lissie - "Peace on Earth"
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One of the most universal thoughts of the holiday season is peace. Lissie did this somewhat traditional version of "Peace on Earth" while keeping it very personal.

The Mustangs of the West - "Everybody Wants Peace on Earth"
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The Mustangs' sound places them squarely in the realm of the Dixie Chicks, Calico the Band, and Pistol Annies. This well written and well produced Christmas wish is a very happy holiday surprise.

The Staves - “Home Alone, Too”
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This British indy-folk outfit includes three singing sisters with beautiful voices who are most often categorized as chamber folk or chamber pop. No matter what you call it, this catchy play on words will dress up your holiday playlist.

Lindsey Webster - "It's Gonna Snow On Christmas"
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Lindsey Webster actually released this charming Christmas single last year, but it still seems fresh and new.

Rita Wilson - "What The World Needs Now"
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Rita Wilson made us believers with her 2017 Christmas album. While this classic Hal David/Burt Bacharach composition may not directly mention the holidays, the timing and the theme are enough for me, plus this version with its simple arrangement of guitar and voice with a little piano leaves all the schmaltzy versions in the dust.

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